A Sona that wasn’t
Maybe I have the wrong expectation of a State of the Nation Address (Sona), but I’ve always thought of it as the principal occasion each year for a president to report to the people on what he has done and what he plans for the coming year. I know of no other occasion that gives this opportunity to a president to speak to a nation that is intently listening.
Certainly, in his fifth Sona President Aquino told us what had been accomplished (the focus on only the positive is par for the course, but unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned; I like a balance). But he told us nothing about what he intended to do. We’re left floundering, wondering where the country will be going. And surely, this is the most important thing.
The general public was, however, quite satisfied, as, I think, well summarized by a business friend of mine who said:
“For me personally, it was his best Sona so far. For the first time I really felt his sincerity to do good for the country. It was a 180-degree turn. I was expecting him to lambast the Supreme Court once again, but he chose to be a statesman this time. P-Noy needs all the support that the business community can give him.”
The President’s ability to relate to the people on their level is a principal reason the country has turned around from the decline of the last years of the Arroyo presidency to a growing confidence of the public, but one that’s now under some threat.
But public support is one thing, and public wellbeing is another. Nearly half of the President’s 91-minute speech was directed to the wonders he achieved in the past year, with praise for a number of people and institutions—even the Bureau of Customs. No one was lambasted, unlike in the past. And, wisely, he did not refer to the controversy involving the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) and his fight with the Supreme Court.
For public wellbeing the President needs the support of the business community, which is more than willing to support him, but it’s not reciprocated. Eighteen business chambers have gotten together for the second time to tell him what is needed if business is to grow faster and wider. And grow it certainly must, as I’ve argued endless times: To get people out of poverty, you have to give them jobs. Businesses generate jobs; no one else can do it. Yet the President doesn’t seem to want to listen to these job-creators.
Am I being too harsh? No. The same was done last year, and of the eight (only eight, so easily manageable) recommendations, only four were mentioned in the 2013 Sona. The other four were not, and progress in the 12 months thereafter has been disappointing in all of them.
Rationalization of fiscal incentives is still hung up in Congress (15 years now); corruption in Customs is less, but still widespread; the power crisis has become even more of a crisis; the proposed antitrust and fair competition law is still not a law; mining is even deader; the essential need to open the economy to more foreign investments remains unsupported by the President, but supported by everyone else; and the judiciary is still in great need of improvement.
Only infrastructure saw some gain, with 57 projects identified for PPP (Public-Private Partnership) financing and seven contracts awarded, and considerable progress in building and constructing roads, etc.
Well, this Sona was even worse. None of the nine recommendations was recognized, let alone mentioned. What business groups want the President to focus on are worth reemphasizing:
• Improve production in agriculture and implement roadmaps for specific subsectors.
• Accelerate infrastructure development. Improve and expand Naia and Clark and build a third airport. Speed up construction of the SLEx-NLEx connector road and connect it to the port of Manila. Shift cargo traffic to Batangas and Subic and stimulate economic activity in those areas.
• Reduce smuggling and approve the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act as quickly as possible. Form a high-level oversight committee of government and private-sector personnel.
• Don’t allow the Supreme Court’s ruling on the DAP to weaken the administration’s efforts to pursue key reforms.
• Uphold good governance. Those involved in the pork barrel and other scams to steal the people’s money must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law at the soonest time, without fear or favor.
• Government agencies and companies must sign the Integrity Pledge, and institutionalize it.
• Improve competence, efficiency and integrity in the justice system.
• Increase foreign investments by opening up the Constitution. Reduce the number of industries on the Foreign Investment Negative List.
• Fully and properly implement the Epira (Electric Power Industry Reform Act); don’t amend it as that will result in an unstable regulatory framework. Look more carefully at attaining energy security and electricity price competitiveness as quickly as possible. Appoint capable, proactive and visionary staff at the Department of Energy and the Energy Regulatory Commission.
These are not unreasonable requests. They are what will improve and strengthen the economy and create jobs.
It’s a miracle that 18 business chambers, representing thousands of businessmen, can agree on nine points. It highlights just how important they are seen to be. Surely, they should get better government attention, and attention that translates into action. Some of the fundamentals needed by business just aren’t occurring swiftly or determinedly enough.
The President wants jobs created, and business wants to do so. Getting together, agreeing on the steps to take, and taking them should be of the highest priority. Sona or no Sona, I hope it can be.
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